Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Eternal Gospel

Reformation Day [Observed]
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2009
John 8:31-36

A historian once said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. We all need to be historians. Because it’s true. If you do not know history you are a slave. You have no freedom. If you’re behind bars, it’s clear to you that you aren’t free. But if you go through life ignoring reality and truth you think you are free when in fact you more of a prisoner than one who is behind bars. We are shortsighted. We often see what we want to see. Jesus has an everlasting perspective.

He proclaims an eternal Gospel. That’s what the First reading from Revelation says, an eternal Gospel is proclaimed. But doesn’t that sound odd to us? Why should there need to be an eternal Gospel? Doesn’t the Gospel only come into play when Adam and Eve fall into sin? Why would the Gospel need to be in existence from eternity? And isn’t there no longer a need for the Gospel when Christ returns in glory and puts an end to this world and we reign in heaven forever without sin and condemnation? Why does the Gospel need to remain for eternity?

Jesus answers that question in the Gospel reading. It’s something along the lines of, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. The people Jesus was speaking to had short memories. Never had been enslaved to anyone? Had they forgotten the Egyptians? And the Babylonians? And what about the Roman occupiers in their own day? But even all of this misses the point, which is why Jesus doesn’t bring it up, as obvious as it is. Their refusal to learn from history is to not acknowledge their slavery to sin.

Paul is forced to make this clear in his letter to the Christians in Rome in our Epistle reading. The Law of God breaks through in this life so that every mouth may be stopped. That doesn’t keep us from talking though, does it? Me, a sinner? Well, yes, but I’m not really that bad. I don’t sin all the time. And the sins I commit don’t really hurt people that much. I could be a lot worse.

By this way of thinking we have shown ourselves to be slaves to sin. We’re so convinced we’re not that bad of sinners we forget the root problem: Original Sin. Yes, you don’t always do really bad things. And some of the really bad things you do don’t come close to comparing to the heinous acts that some, even many, people commit. But you are bound up in your sinful flesh—you are a sinner not just because you sin, but because you are born in sin and are enslaved to it. Those who ignore this are condemned.

Since our memories are so short, God has a way of dealing with this that is outside of our realm of dealing with time and figuring out which sins are really bad and which ones aren’t as big of a deal—it’s His eternal Gospel. It’s the truth that will set you free. If His Gospel is from eternity and lasts for eternity there’s no way you can wonder if your being bound up in your sinful flesh is not covered by His grace, His mercy, His love. It is. It’s eternal. He always had in view, from eternity, loving you and being in relationship with you.

You are free by what God has done in His eternal action of the Gospel. Believing in Christ is abiding in this eternal Gospel, something that is outside of yourself, from before you were ever around and that will last forever. When the people talking to Jesus wanted to place the ground of their faith in themselves He insisted that it must be grounded in Him and His eternal Gospel.

Jesus says those who commit sin are slaves to sin. He doesn’t go down a list to help them sort out whether they’re really bad sinners or sinners who just do some bad things now and then. Those who commit sin are slaves to sin because they are born in sin and are wrapped up in their sinful flesh. To be freed from this you must be freed from it. You cannot free yourself from it. You must be freed from it by something outside of you. By someone who is not bound by sin. You are set free by the Son who from eternity is your Savior.

It’s not easy to abide in Jesus’ Word. It means doing what we do when we confess our sins. That we are by nature sinful. That there is nothing good within us and nothing good we can do in the sight of God. That we deserve His temporal and eternal punishment. There’s nothing easy about this.

But there is something freeing about it. There’s something amazingly revolutionary about it. Standing before God and not making a case for yourself. Not justifying your sinful actions or rationalizing them away. Simply confessing them. Simply saying, God, what you say is true, I am a sinner, condemn me because it’s all that I deserve. There’s something freeing about this, because as we stand before God in this condition—sinful, unworthy, condemned—we are standing before a God who tells us to lift up our head. To turn our gaze to a hill that stood just outside of a small city. A hill upon which was another sinner. A sinner who was crucified on that hill. A sinner who is God the Father’s very own Son.

But this is all wrong! He’s not the sinner, I am. How is it that God points us to the one on the cross as the sinner when we are the ones? How it is is the eternal Gospel. Jesus becomes the sinner so that we may be set free. Free from sin. Free from the condemnation of the Law. Free from any notions that we’re not that bad and only need to keep trying a little harder. And even more, freed from the Law that is constantly beating us down that we haven’t loved enough, shared the Gospel with enough people, haven’t been in the Word of God as much as we should be. Freeing us up from this condemnation to simply live in His grace. To be freed to serve in our simple, humble, often awkward ways. Even our sometimes faltering ways.

That’s what the eternal Gospel always does. When you are freed you are not then put under a new Law in which you must now do stuff for God. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! He has had this in view from eternity! Jesus is your Lord eternally. He is your Savior eternally. You are free eternally. You are not condemned. You are not bound. You are Baptized. You are fed by Your Savior Himself. His very Body, His very Blood, placed in your mouth for you to eat and drink and be filled and refreshed and forgiven and freed.

This is not of anything you do. Thank God! It’s everything of God and by God, eternally, for you. Amen.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Alternative Way

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke, Evangelist
October 18, 2009
Mark 10:23-31

The man who came to Jesus in last week’s Gospel reading asking how he could gain heaven walked away from it all because He didn’t want the way Jesus offered him. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus fleshes out what it means to follow Him.

In one word it is humility. Jesus doesn’t tell us how to be humble. He doesn’t even tell us to be humble. But that’s what He’s preaching. The way Jesus gives us is a different way than the world offers us.

What does the world offer you? Why not get the most out of life you can rather than submitting to the demands or wishes of others? Even so, there are many people in the world who are not Christians who are very kind and generous. They help others and even put others before themselves. But what happens? The world points to those people and says, See how humble they are! They’re enamored with the person, which kind of takes away from the humility. The world offers in the form of many religions a system in which you attain reward because of who you are or what you do. This way is no more possible than passing through the eye of a needle, something you no more can do than can a camel. What is demanded in all these religions is not humility but perfection. There is no point in even attempting to meet the demands of these religions because you’re sunk before you even begin.

Jesus offers an alternative way. It’s getting out of the way. He embodies this Himself. He is the embodiment of God. God doesn’t sit on His throne and command us to be humble. He humbles Himself to come to us. We entered the House of God this morning in His Name, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Moments ago we confessed our faith of who He is in the Nicene Creed: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is the true God, the only God. And the thing about the true God… He gets out of the way. He humbles Himself by passing, so to speak, through the eye of a needle knowing that we cannot. In other words, what is impossible for us, but demanded of us in order to be saved, He accomplishes, because all things are possible with Him.

The Holy Spirit is fully God, the Lord and Giver of Life, and yet gets out of the way. He points to Jesus, delivers Him to us. Jesus is true God—God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God—and yet points us to the Father. Jesus’ concern is glorifying His Heavenly Father. The Father is God—Almighty, maker of heaven and earth—and yet points us to His Son, Jesus Christ. This is My beloved Son, listen to Him.

In a sea of people boasting of their humility, looking for ways to humble themselves, attempting to be more humble, God offers an alternative: Himself. The Lord above all humbles Himself and gives Himself to us. In our attempts to gain recognition for what we do either by others lauding our efforts, or our listing our accomplishments to God, He simply shows us one thing that has been accomplished. And it has been accomplished by Him. It is truly the greatest accomplishment and yet done in the humblest of circumstances. Our Lord suffering in our place, taking upon Himself our sin.

It’s really hard to talk as Christians about humility. Once you point it out it becomes the focus, and that kind of takes out the point. The way to be humble is to get out of the way. What is our tendency? The disciples don’t want to take Jesus’ way as the way, so they exclaim: “Then who can be saved?” Humility would simply accept Jesus’ word for what it is. Peter doesn’t want to get out of the way and focus solely on Christ so he mentions a fact his Lord apparently wasn’t aware of: “We have left everything and followed You.”

The amazing thing about God is that He really gets out of the way. He knows that we’re constantly wanting to go back to our own notions of how we’re in the good favor of God, and He still uses us for His eternal will of accomplishing salvation for the world.

I like to give the Confirmation kids quizzes. And I think they like them, but you can ask them. So here’s a quiz, but don’t answer them out loud, just answer in your head these two questions, true or false:

1. You don’t do the works God has called you to do in your life.
2. You do the works God has called you to do in your life.

In a humorous vein, you can test out your humility by seeing your reaction if you get both answers right whether you congratulate yourself or not. Or, conversely, if you get one or both wrong, if you congratulate yourself on your humility because you failed the test.

But to the serious point of the answers to the two questions, the answer to the first question—you don’t do the works God has called you to do in your life—that’s true, you don’t. The answer to the second question—you do the works God has called you to do in your life—that’s true also, you do.

This is God offering an alternative way of humility, some would say nonsensical. And they would be right. Jesus doesn’t spend His time explaining that His way is logical, He just says it. The truth is, we don’t do the works God has called us to do. We fail miserably. We try. Sometimes we don’t even try. But try or not, we don’t accomplish what God demands. If trying were all that were needed the Bible wouldn’t have been nearly as long as it is. But in the manifold pages of Scripture it becomes abundantly clear that what God demands is perfection, and that is where you come up short. Convince yourself all you want to the contrary, but the answer to number 1 is No, you don’t do what God has called you to do.

But there’s another truth. And that is the truth of statement 2. You do what God has called you to do. You do the works He commands of you. And this is not some sort of trying thing either. You do them perfectly. Exactly as the Law of God demands. God the Father is as pleased with your works as He is with His own Son, Jesus Christ. And this is the key to it all. Jesus is the one who brings about humility in us, not our attempts at it.

Jesus is the reason we can say without doubt that we don’t do what God demands of us. Otherwise, why did Jesus suffer eternal condemnation in our place? Jesus is also the reason we can say in full confidence that we do what God has commanded us. Otherwise, why did Jesus accomplish the perfect fulfillment of the Law in our place? The way Jesus talks in the Gospel reading shows us how both of these things are possible at the same time. “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time.” On the one hand, when you stand before the altar of God to confess your sins, can you honestly say that you have done what Jesus demands, what Peter was convinced of that he did? Instead, haven’t you put all of these things before God in your life? At the same time, as you stand before the altar of God and hear His proclamation of the Absolution of your sins, can you not but thank Him for the amazing opportunities He gives you in your life to serve Him right where you’re at? In your home, loving and taking care of your family. Helping out your neighbors when they’re in need.

There is no one who has not left “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” who has not done so by Jesus Christ Himself accomplishing it. It is indeed no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you. No wonder you’re able to live as God has called you to live! He accomplishes even this. He frees you up to serve Him. He frees you from the constraints of the Law to practice the Law of love, humbly, joyfully serving those God has placed in your life. When you get out of the way the Holy Spirit has a field day working through you to serve others.

But if you wonder at the many ways the world offers; the appeals of your sinful flesh; the temptations of the devil; know that there is an alternative to all of that. It’s not just another way. It’s the way. The way of humility is not trying to be humble, it’s simply the way of Christ. It’s Christ being humble on your account. “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Christ is first of all and became last for all. Christ is Lord of Creation and yet humbly offers you His body and blood in a simple meal at this altar. The Holy Spirit fills you up with the righteousness of Christ so that the Heavenly Father may look upon you and be pleased and pour out upon you all His eternal blessings. Amen.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Must I NOT Do to Be Saved?

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 11, 2009
Mark 10:17-22

You do a lot of things. Conversely, there’s a lot of things you don’t do. A lot of what you do you do purposefully, a lot you simply do with no thought to it. At the same time, there are things you don’t do because you choose not to do them, just as there are things you don’t do because it never comes to mind.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about doing and not doing. In other words, it’s just like life. There are two people here, Jesus and a man who comes up to Him, both of whom are doing distinct things and not doing distinct things.

Jesus is as He always is. He is doing something but not just anything. He is going about His specific work of salvation. Mark says Jesus is setting out on His journey. We know where that journey led Him, to the cross. Nobody else around had a clue that that’s what Jesus was doing.

Certainly not the man who showed up who likewise was doing something very specific. Accomplishing a lifetime of obeying God’s Law, he found in his life there was still something missing. Jesus, what must I do to be saved? There’s got to be something more than what I’ve already done.

His focus was on what he must do. Jesus answers that it is not what he must do but what he must NOT do. What He is getting at is the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods.

Interesting, then, that He doesn’t mention that commandment at all. He lists seven commandments. The first three of the Ten Commandments He doesn’t state. The ones He does all deal with the second table of the Law, the ones dealing with our relationship with others. The first three commandments, the first table of the Law, deal with our relationship with God. The first table is the one Jesus is concerned with with the man who seeks to gain eternal life. The whole Law is summed up in the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods.

What must you do to be saved? It’s what you must NOT do. You must have no other gods. This was this man’s problem. This is our basic problem. We have other gods. We put all kinds of things in place of God. Actually, that we place many things in place of the true God is the way we place ourselves in front of God.

If we search for what we must do we will not find it. Rather, God says, You shall have no other gods. Jesus was the one rightly doing something in this episode. He was on His way. He was heading to the cross. That’s where salvation takes place. Not in your heart where you are proud of yourself for obeying the second table of the Law. You take care of your ailing parents and patiently put up with their eccentricities and demands. You bite your tongue when your co-worker makes backhanded insults to you. You obey copyright laws even when no one would ever know if you didn’t. These are all good things. And we should do them. God’s Law is clear on that. But do these things end up becoming our gods? The apostle Paul even said of himself that before he became a Christian “as to righteousness under the Law, I was blameless” (Philippians 3:6).

The man who was seeking salvation from Jesus went to the right person. But he had it all wrong. Jesus, what must I do? No, it’s rather what you must not do. Why did Jesus go to the cross if you could gain salvation from obeying the Law? Why was Jesus so intent on getting to that cross if it came down to you doing something in order to be saved?

It’s what you must not do to be saved that Jesus drives home in His directive to the man, to sell all he has and follow Him. The man was convinced he had kept all the commandments. Jesus doesn’t dispute that. His reply is simple: “You lack one thing.” The one thing is the only thing. It is the main thing and the thing without which you have you have nothing. It is having no other gods. It is fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things.

Money may not be your thing, like it was for that man. It may be your charisma, or your unwavering service to others, or your comfortable habit of being here in God’s House when it’s convenient, or your consistency in being here in God’s House. There are a lot of things we do. So often in our lives what we do reflects our natural penchant toward ourselves rather than having no other gods.

The man walked away from Jesus and what he had been seeking, eternal life, not because his wealth was his god, but because he himself was his god. If what you do gains for yourself eternal life you don’t need Jesus. The man didn’t want Jesus, he wanted Jesus to clue him in on what he was still lacking. Or perhaps he just wanted Jesus to confirm the man’s worthiness. You’re good to go, pal. Keep up the good work. Wish there were more guys like you.

But Jesus gives us the one thing we lack, and that is, well, it’s Him. Jesus gives us Himself. He is the heart of the First Commandment. Having no other gods means nothing other than Jesus is your hope of salvation. Jesus didn’t go to the cross for nothing. He went to the cross for the world. Nobody was doing anything that accomplished their salvation while Jesus was hanging on the cross. Jesus was doing it all. Salvation is in Him: His suffering, His death, His resurrection.

What you must not do to be saved is have other gods. What you must do is nothing. You’re very good at doing all the things you do and very good at not doing all the things you don’t do. Don’t continue down that road. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s also the road of a lot of people doing a lot of things; many of them good, wonderful things—loving people, being kind to them, obeying God’s Law.

The road to salvation is the road Jesus walked. It’s the road that led to the cross and continues on from the empty tomb. This is the road you follow. You’ll still be tempted to think of this road you’re on, the one of following Jesus, as one in which you’re doing good things for Jesus. I’m following Jesus, it’s a good thing I’m doing this! I serve Jesus, it’s a good thing I’m doing what He wants!

But on this road Jesus will keep bringing you back down to earth: There is one thing you lack, and that is Me. What I accomplished on Calvary. What I give to you in My Holy Supper, My very Body and Blood, given and shed for you. In this way He raises you up to heaven. Amen.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Messy Affair

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2009
Mark 10:2-16

This came in the email just in time for today’s Gospel reading which is about marriage and family. Questions about marriage are asked of children:

“How do you decide who to marry?”

Alan, age 10, says: You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming.

Kirsten, age 10, says: No person really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.

“What is the right age to get married?”

Camille, age 10, says: Twenty-three is the best age because you know the person FOREVER by then.

And you have to wonder what kind of home Freddie, age 6, grew up in to say: No age is good to get married at. You got to be a fool to get married.

“How can a stranger tell if two people are married?”

Derrick, age 8, opines: You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.

Out of the mouths of babes often comes the harsh reality of how sin has impacted God’s instituting of marriage. One of my favorite comic strips, the Wizard of Id, shows us exactly the problem here. A woman in a funeral home standing next to the coffin of her deceased husband says to another woman: An operation might have saved him, but our insurance denied it. Apparently he had a pre-existing condition. To which the other woman asked, What was it? This met with the response: He was alive.

Jesus shows us that this is our problem in the Gospel reading today. Whether you are married or single, divorced or have never been married or are widowed, have children or not able to, grew up in a big family or are an only child, adopted or orphaned, there is something you all have in common: you are all part of a family. In families genes are passed along. We carry on certain traits. One thing that has been passed along from Adam and Eve was alluded to in the comic strip and evidenced by the children who were asked how they view marriage: we are all born in sin. This is called original sin and we can no more escape that genetic trait than we can our eye color or a congenital disease.

God’s creation is perfect, our sin has damaged it. How we approach the good things God has created is even tainted with sin. Today’s Gospel reading gives us some good examples of this. How the Pharisees approach God’s gift of marriage betrays their approach to it. They ask a question consistent with the Law. But this begs the question, doesn’t it? After all, who is the author of the Law? It is God. Jesus even affirms that the Law in the Old Testament permitted divorce. Here Jesus is speaking against it and then admits that God allowed divorce. Oh, He gives a reason. But He allowed it. I hate it when God gets things wrong. How are you supposed to teach that divorce is against God’s will when He gave people an out because of the hardness of their hearts? Wouldn’t that just give people an out today?

Actually, what Jesus is doing is what He always does. He responds according to what is in our hearts. He responds according to what He knows we need. If you seek what you want according to the Law what you will get is the Law. If you are given the Gospel it will be Law to you. On the other hand, if you seek the Gospel that is exactly what you will get. If you get Law you will think it is Gospel, only, it won’t be. God always gives you exactly what you need. Sometimes you need Law. Sometimes you need Gospel.

It all gets to be a very messy affair, this business of Law and Gospel. It’s kind of like a family. Having a family is a messy affair. There’s all kinds of people running around the house complaining about how so and so isn’t doing enough work and so and so messed up my homework and so and so won’t leave me alone and so and so said she’d play with me but now is playing with so and so and some people in the family are just wondering if there will be any peace and quiet at some point in this day or if the yelling and the TV and other annoying sounds will continue on into eternity.

Families do not always seem to be a place of refuge of love and peace and quiet. Maybe that’s why the Pharisees come at the whole situation to Jesus from a Law perspective. If it gets to be where being in this family is bringing me down, can I just get out? I notice Mark yet again doesn’t tell us what the disciples asked Jesus but he does give us Jesus’ response, and if we can judge from that we can see that the disciples still weren’t getting it. Though not testing Jesus as the Pharisees were, they were approaching marriage and family from the same Law perspective as the Pharisees were.

There’s not a whole lot of difference between the Pharisees and the disciples. Conversely, there’s a universe of difference between them and Jesus. They approach marital and family matters the way they approach life. What do I need to do to make this better? How can I make this work? What can I do to get out of it what will be best for me? We are heirs of an astonishingly pathetic tradition. It can be summed up in the cartoon. It’s a condition we all suffer from. We’re alive. Which means, we’re dead. Living for us means what can we do to satisfy ourselves in this life. What that means for us is death. It means if we approach these matters, and life itself, from a Law perspective we’ll get a Law answer. And the Law always condemns. It doesn’t only condemn, but it always condemns. It guides and instructs and shows us the best way, but it never leaves you where you need to be. It always leaves you coming up short. It always ends up condemning you.

On the other hand is the Gospel. But this too is a messy affair. Because the Gospel only comes in when you’re in the mess of sin and need. The Gospel comes in for you, a sinner. Those cute little kids that were being brought to Jesus were cute little sinners. We can smile all we want at the cute little baby in her little white Baptismal outfit. But the true joy that comes from that baby’s life is not in being cute but in being drowned in the waters of Baptism and raised to eternal life.

There will come a point where God will leave you to your own desires. Your ways are the ways of the Law. He will not force the Gospel upon you. He will always offer it to you, but never beat you down with it. If you want to get out of marriage or life only what you want to get out of it He will let you go your own way. But He will always be there for you, offering you the blessing you need. That’s why He blessed those children, because they needed it. They weren’t just cute. They were sinners. They needed to be forgiven. That’s why they were brought to Jesus. That’s why we bring babies and children and adults to the font to be Baptized. To be blessed. To receive the blessing of Christ. To receive salvation. To receive eternal life. To be forgiven of all their sins. To go from that font a child of God.

No matter, our sinful flesh will sit there and step into the role of Pharisee or ignorant disciple. But the Kingdom of God belongs to children! Why do they need Baptism if Jesus says to such belongs His Kingdom?! Yes, our Old Adam loves to approach things from the Law. That’s what got us into the mess we’re in and the need for the Gospel in the first place. We’re shackled by the Law. It’s like being in a marriage you feel like you’re suffocating in. Your consuming thought is How can I get out of this? It’s like longing for the day you can get out from under the demands of your parents so that you can have the freedom that will make your life so much better. The Law will always get you to a place that will leave you coming up short.

Jesus does not say the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children. You don’t get into heaven simply because you’re a child. You get into it when you are such as they are. And how is that? Well, they certainly didn’t do anything. They didn’t come to Jesus. They didn’t ask Him for anything. They were brought. They were brought to Jesus by their parents. And that is how we must be. We must be brought to Jesus. We can’t come to Him on our own. They didn’t do anything; neither can we.

We get in not because of what we do but because of what has been done to us. We are brought into the eternal Family of God through Baptism. Our Lord is our Savior. Our Master is not ashamed to be called our brother. He has brought us into His family in which there is no longer any genetic strain of sin. We are born of God and inherit the righteousness of Christ. We are brought into a relationship that is of unconditional love. Our Lord is our Husband. We are His Bride. We are joined to Him in Baptism. He invites us to celebrate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

We await that day. We await it by celebrating a foretaste of it in His Holy Supper. It was a messy affair what Jesus did in instituting His Holy Supper. About to die. To put His life in place of ours. To be the sacrifice, the one slain, the one whose blood was shed. There was no messier affair, the sins of fallen humanity shouldered by the sinless Lamb of God, and yet no more beautiful thing in all of history, no greater love shown. The risen Lord and Christ now comes to you in His very same Body and Blood to grant you His life, His forgiveness, His salvation. Amen.